Daniel Ollman, the director of "Suffering and Smiling," met the musician Femi Kuti when he was performing in Milwaukee, where Ollman lives. When Ollman told Femi that he wanted to create a documentary about Femi and his father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti – who started singing about Nigeria’s problems after its independence in 1960 – he was invited immediately to tour with the group.
The documentary, which will be screened on Thursday, March 6, at Princeton Public Library, as part of the Princeton Reads program, is about the struggle of Femi and his family against the Nigerian government. Ollman, who will lead a post-screening discussion, calls Femi the "true president of Nigeria." "Their family does exactly what the government doesn’t do," he says. "It gives back to the people, educates the people, and makes Nigeria great – unlike the people who rule, who are exploiting it for their own good."
Before he visited Nigeria, Ollman says he did not believe the country could possibly be as it was portrayed in Femi’s music and Fela’s records. But he found the poverty in Nigeria, the sixth largest oil producer in the world, to be so bad he could only describe it as "insane" – no paved roads, children defecating and urinating in the street, people using the same water for washing and drinking, people getting beaten.
Ollman believes that the current leaders in Nigeria have replaced the indigenous roots, which are about people working together, with the Western "me mentality" of people who will do everything they can to get things for themselves. "They call it democracy but it is really a capitalist dictatorship in the form of a democracy."
He says the people he met in Nigeria presented themselves as Westerners if possible. They would, for example, respond to tourists first in French, then in British English, and finally in American English – trying to appear as anything but Nigerian. "They are brainwashed to believe the West is best, that the only way to make good of yourself is by going West and believing in the West."
After Fela died in 1997, Femi and his sisters set up a performance venue called the New Africa Shrine, in Lagos, that was also a political base for people to gather to talk about politics, listen to music, eat, and play checkers. Ollman says the reality of the contrasts between poverty and plenty are often too much for people, and the atmosphere at the center is not necessarily peaceful. "It is hard for a lot of people to hear the truth – even people being exploited," says Ollman. "The truth is extremely painful, so they sometimes go and get drunk or stoned and beat up each other."
Like his friend Femi, Ollman is something of a rebel. His stepfather works for Manpower, where his mother also worked until she was fired.
Ollman attended college for a couple years in Milwaukee and then fell into documentary filmmaking – because he liked the idea of doing something with a message. "People in the States don’t understand suffering," he says. "That’s why a film like this is hard to show in the States. People get upset and think it’s all made up."
Ollman’s goal is to teach people about the realities of suffering in Africa, a huge continent that is the birthplace of civilization. "A lot of the problems we have is that people don’t understand the rest of the world," he says. "If we told people, it wouldn’t be like this."